Ravinder Kaur explores the major reason behind Indian daughters being considered a liability – the wedding ceremony and its implications.”
Marriage, in India, is destiny for both the woman and the man, although it does not have the same serious implications for both. Marriage is the primary way for people to attain what is termed as “social adulthood”, largely because physical relations outside of marriage are not given social legitimacy and recognition.
It is, therefore, almost a compulsory rite of passage. One can conclude from the huge number of ceremonies that are built around marriages in India – as well as the high expenditure incurred because of them – that this institution enjoys a very special status in Indian society.
Indian marriages are mostly patrilocal, which means that it is the woman who has to leave her home and move into her husband’s family. The burden of adjustment falls on her and patterns of inequality set in right at this stage. It means that she lacks the support structures that were once within her reach, and that her autonomy and decision-making abilities could be severely curtailed.
So one could say marriage has been oppressive and more difficult for women, especially in the north – with the associated issues of virginity, of chastity, family honour, all of which are tied up with the behaviour and body of the woman.
Girls for domesticity
Change may be happening in some parts of the country, especially in urban areas, but the girl child is still socialised to regard marriage as one of the necessary steps she needs to take in life, even if she were to get educated and find a job. Marriage is typically tied up with the perception of moving into the next stage of life; of finding a home of one’s own; of achieving future mobility.
Boys, in contrast, define their mobility in terms of taking up a job outside the home, for instance, or going to another city. In the case of girls and women, the idea of mobility remains dependent on men/husbands through marriage, which also means bearing children and keeping homes going through the drudgery of domestic work.
Marry her “up”
Ultimately, marriage is an exchange of women, with a lot of the mobility strategies of families tied up with that exchange. This exchange at marriage, of women and goods, has been used in some ways as an important mode of building relationships between families. Typically, the attempt by the woman’s family is to marry their daughter “up” – and often this becomes one of the justifications for dowry because there is the implicit assumption that if you want to marry “up”, you have to pay for the higher status. Inequality is thus built into that situation. The control is in the hands of the wife takers.
Wife and in-law. More in-law
The young woman when she comes into a family as a bride – and these are experiences prevalent in the north – would literally be at the beck and call of every single member of her husband’s family. She would have to get up early in the morning and go to bed after everybody else. Traditionally, there was not much in terms of the companionate aspect of marriage in such a relationship. Apart from reproductive purposes, families tried to prevent any independent relationship building up between the couple. Talk about a marriage!
The women would all sleep in one space and the men in another. Covert cohabitation would take place and children would happen, but families were authority structures exercising almost complete control over the lives of the young couple.
Of course, this aspect of conjugality is changing now, even in the conservative pockets of states such as Haryana and Punjab. There are increasingly instances of couples breaking away from the larger family and forming new units. But, traditionally, family control was very real and made for a situation of great inequality for the young women, who entered households as brides. Such relationships, therefore, can never be egalitarian by definition.
Daughter or commodity?
Marriage is also a household strategy based on sending female members out. Even if a woman is educated, and is earning an independent income, she has no way of fighting this system and the humiliation that it can sometimes entail. One of their biggest concerns for most parents is that their daughters remain happy after marriage – they give her a car, give her a dowry, in order to ensure she gets respect in her marital home. But ultimately, her happiness depends on how her relationship fares with her husband and how his family treats her. She can be treated badly even if she had brought in a good dowry.
Just wedding. Not marriage.
Marriage expenses have grown over the year – even for the groom’s family – because they are status building exercises. The more ostentatious a marriage is, the better. These expenses are very draining on family finances and help to explain why daughters in India came to be regarded as liabilities. It’s time Indian parents give themselves a reality check and understand that weddings are not meant to up their own social status but to bond their daughter in marriage to her husband and his family.